Barbershop Quartets on Early 78s

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries


Quartet singing was incredibly popular in the acoustic era, but no quartets of the acoustic era were known as barbershop quartets. Promotional literature issued by record companies never used the term. How "barbershop" became an adjective for quartet singing is not clear. There is no evidence that quartet singing had ever been popular in American barbershops.

Music historian Sigmund Spaeth was the first to use the term in books, beginning in 1924 in The Common Sense of Music (Boni and Liveright, 1924). His chapter "Close Harmony" refers to "ways of filling out the 'barber-shops.'" In 1925 he wrote Barber Shop Ballads and How To Sing Them. The September 17, 1925, issue of Music Trade Review states, "Under the chairmanship of Dr. Sigmund Spaeth, whose headquarters will be 437 Fifth Avenue, New York City, a contest committee has been appointed for the 'National Barber Shop Ballad Contest.' The competition, which is open to any quartet, amateur or professional, will give as a first prize a contract for a tour in vaudeville over the Keith-Albee circuit."

Earlier references to "barbershop" as a musical term are rare. The earliest seems to be in the 1910 song "Play That Barber-Shop Chord," popularized by Bert Williams in Follies of 1910 and on Columbia disc A929. The song does not actually refer to barbershop quartets but "barbershop" is used as a musical term (it is a type of harmony). The song's composer was Lewis F. Muir. William Tracey is given credit on sheet music for lyrics, but Ballard Macdonald successfully argued in court that he was the song's originator, which resulted in the song's publisher paying Macdonald $37,500, forcing the publisher into bankruptcy.

Two American Quartet records will be of special interest to music historians curious about how "barber shop" and "barber-shop," later "barbershop," evolved as an adjective for quartets. Singing "Play That Barber Shop Chord" for Victor 5799 (recorded in 1910), the American Quartet stops at one point to interpolate "Sweet Adeline," making explicit a connection between barbershop harmony and quartet singing. Describing the number, Victor's catalog dated November 1910 states, "The 'barber shop chord, a name given (we wonder why!) to an abrupt modulation occurring in a male quartet rendition, has been the subject of innumerable jokes. Though of course treated with contempt by jealous 'high brow' musical critics, who fail to comprehend its beauty, this classic style has delighted vaudeville and minstrel audiences from time immemorial; and these startling chords are now made the theme of a clever darky song, which is given most entertainingly by Mr. Murray and his fellow conspirators."

The other American Quartet record with a "barbershop" reference is "Sailin' Away on the Henry Clay," issued on Victor 18353 in 1917. It contains the line, "Hear that barbershop quartet a-harmonizin'..."

In 1931, Vernon Dalhart and Adelyne Hood hosted for a shaving cream manufacturer, Barbasol, the network radio show Barber Shop Chords. It featured Dalhart as Barbasol Ben, Hood as a manicurist named Barbara, and a barber shop quartet. Broadcast three times a week on CBS, the show left the air in October 1931 after six months.

A now-famous Norman Rockwell illustration of a quartet singing in a barbershop graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post dated September 26, 1936. The term "barbershop quartet" became commonplace after the formation, in 1938, of SPEBSQSA (Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America).

The three most popular male quartets during the 78 rpm acoustic era were the Peerless, American, and Haydn Quartets.